No. 22 Virginia men’s basketball overcame a double-digit first half deficit and the absence of several assistant coaches and players due to COVID-19 protocols to beat Wake Forest 70-61 Wednesday night. The Cavaliers (6-2, 2-0 ACC) used a strong second half on the defensive end and efficient offensive play throughout the night to come back against the Demon Deacons (3-2, 0-2 ACC).
Wake Forest opened the scoring on a three-pointer by junior forward Isaiah Mucius, and with 8:47 remaining in the opening half, the Demon Deacons had built a 26-14 advantage over the Cavaliers. Fueling the strong start for Wake Forest was exceptional shooting, as the team made five of their first six threes and 12 of their first 17 total shots.
Six-foot-eight sophomore forward Ismael Massoud hit three triples for the Demon Deacons in the first 10 minutes, and it appeared early that Wake Forest — the team picked to finish last in the ACC — would give a ranked Virginia squad some trouble.
However, the Cavaliers began to close the gap, and over the next five minutes, Virginia ripped off a 15-4 run to cut the Demon Deacon lead to 30-29. Highlighting the run were seven points by freshman guard Reece Beekman, and threes from senior forward Jay Huff and junior guard Trey Murphy.
However, the Cavaliers could not quite capture the lead as Wake Forest was able to answer with a few buckets before halftime, taking a 39-34 advantage into the break. In the half, the Demon Deacons shot 62.5 percent from the field — including 60 percent from three — and were led by 10 points from Mucius and 9 points from Massoud.
While Virginia also had a respectable first half offensively — shooting above 50 percent and receiving scoring contributions from seven different players — the defensive effort was certainly subpar by the Cavaliers’ high standards.
“I thought offensively we were pretty good in the first half,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “We got the shots we needed, but defensively, we had a lot of trouble. Again they were hitting shots. We had some breakdowns.
Virginia opened the second half strong, quickly erasing the deficit and tying the game at 41 apiece on a pair of free throws by Murphy just over three minutes into the frame. A possession later, the Cavaliers took their first lead of the game on a jumper from junior guard Kihei Clark. Wake Forest quickly answered, but from there, Virginia began to take control of the game.
Starting with an and-one bucket by senior forward Sam Hauser with 17:30 left in the game and ending with a jumper by Hauser to extend the Virginia advantage to 60-49 with less than 10 minutes remaining, the Cavaliers did not miss a single shot. The run was spearheaded by Hauser, as he scored eight points, finding his shooting touch from inside the arc.
With the defense also clamping down, Virginia was able to take full advantage of this highly efficient offensive play. After a three from Massoud closed the Cavalier lead to 50-48 with 13:19 left, Virginia allowed only one point over the ensuing 6:49 to further stretch the lead and allow the team to coast in the final minutes. The closest the Demon Deacons would come for the rest of the game was the final margin of nine points, as the Cavaliers were able to cruise to a 70-61 win.
Despite missing several assistant coaches and exceptional on-ball defender sophomore guard Casey Morsell, positive adjustments were clearly made heading into the second half, as Virginia outscored Wake Forest 36-22.
“[In] the second half I thought we adjusted well,” Bennett said. “I thought the ball pressure picked up. Kihei [Clark] decided to really pick up the ball and everybody, with some adjustments I think that helped, really just stepped up.”
Leading the Cavaliers for the game was Hauser, who, despite struggling from behind the three-point arc, put together a fairly efficient 16-point, 11-rebound effort. It marked his second double-double in as many games.
Also with strong performances were Beekman, who logged 12 points and an impressive 5 steals, and Clark, Huff and Murphy, who all scored in double-digits. In fact, all five starters scored at least 10 points.
As a team, Virginia shot almost 54 percent from the field, and while the Demon Deacons shot a concerning 51.1 percent on the game, a key difference was the 13 turnovers committed by Wake Forest to only six by the Cavaliers. With the exception of 15 turnovers against Gonzaga, Virginia has taken care of the ball all season, ranking third in the nation at only 8.5 turnovers per game.
Despite the shaky non-conference start, the Cavaliers have put together a strong start to conference play, winning their first two games by nine points each. Virginia hopes to continue their solid play as they travel to Chestnut Hill, Mass. to face Boston College Saturday. Tip-off at the Conte Forum is set for 2 p.m. and the game will be televised on the ACC Network.